BY RYAN CALHOUN | APRIL 23, 2014
Bundy, the Senecas and fighting for sovereignty
In 1997, New York state declared war on the Seneca Nation reservations located upstate near Tonawanda. The war was over a declared power of the state to impose taxes on goods sold on native reservations. As enforcement, New York saw fit to shut down native businesses, cutting off petroleum and cigarette supplies to the Senecas.
In response to this declaration of war, natives and their supporters blocked traffic onto their land from state troopers and mounted a blockade on Interstate 90 and Route 17. Cops were confronted, tires were burned and thrown into the street, traffic was slowed or halted and the injustice of the actions of New York were highlighted by protesters who waved signs and handed out leaflets to inconvenienced thruway-goers.
This resistance paid off big for the Senecas and the war efforts of New York’s government were at least temporarily halted. The Senecas had won. They had not won through lobbying, through peaceful protest, by appeal to the inherent right of natives to the land, but by facing down the government that made a claim to their land and their wealth and saying no.
Now let us travel to contemporary Nevada and a war of a different sort. This war was declared by the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management. Their adversaries, rancher Cliven Bundy and his family, have been ranchers in this area for over a century, but the federal government believes that it has a right to seize Bundy’s land. The ostensive claims by the feds on Bundy’s land stem from unpaid fines levied against him for using “federal land” and laws protecting an endangered tortoise population.
This war came to a head last week as federal agents surrounded the perimeter of Bundy’s ranch. The message was very clear: Pay us, give up your land or face violent conflict. Bundy chose the third option, and a successful Internet campaign on his behalf brought hundreds of supporters to the Bundy ranch. Many of these supporters were from “militia groups.” Others were simply average Americans who sympathized with Bundy’s plight. After a days-long standoff, the BLM were fought off the Bundy ranch.
It might seem obviously wrong to compare these two events. After all, as many have rightly pointed out, the land Bundy now defends is in all likelihood the result of historical injustice against Native Americans. What legitimate right does Bundy have to this land beyond a claim to ancestral sovereignty? These ancestors cared nothing at all for the native claim to this ranch. I’m conflicted here. If some band of natives tomorrow were to storm the Bundy property and seize it, I imagine my emotions would be apathetic at best. Such is the nature of many claims to property in America, muddled by the savage treatment of Native Americans and their claim to the lands of this country. While I have not familiarized myself with the particular claims of natives to Bundy’s land, I assume that in some way the original acquisition by the Bundys of this land amounts to little more than theft.
But who enabled this theft? Certainly not the Bundy clan. The culprit in injustices against natives has almost always been the federal and state government itself since its establishment. I do not empathize with the claim of familial rights that Bundy makes here. What I do find myself in solidarity with is any and all opposition to encroachment.
These wars against private individuals are for one reason: Government plunder. Any notion that the federal government cares about the wildlife of the Nevadan desert is preposterous. The menace of Bundy’s cattle to tortoises pales in comparison to the maliciousness towards nature displayed time and again by the US government, which set off multiple atom bombs across the American west in the heyday of nuclear testing. This is about control, not protection of any species.
It is only through blatant opposition to government claims that we can begin to imagine a world in which some manner of justice is restored to Native Americans. The Senecas understood in 1997 that if they did not mount a resistance to the war declared by New York, they would lose any real sovereign right to their land. Today, Bundy stands for the same principle of opposition. I do not support Bundy because of his property rights claim, but because he sought to truly defend his claim to the land against an ever-expanding federal presence. This wasn’t about states’ rights, property rights or historical injustice. It was about standing up to government power.
C4SS.org Contributing writer Ryan Calhoun is a Philosophy student and activist at the University at Buffalo.